Embracing the myth of Muslim innocence.
Last month, according to at least one count, there were 154 terrorist attacks around the world. Here’s a rundown of some of the major ones. The Taliban took 23 lives in Helmond Province, Afghanistan; at least 15 in Qaysar District, Afghanistan; ten in Kunduz Province, Afghanistan; 20 in Bala Murghab, Afghanistan; 22 in a second attack in Qaysar; and 65 in Sangin District, Afghanistan. ISIS murdered eight people in Idlib, Syria; five in the Anbar desert in Iraq; 16 in Jalalabad; seven in Makhmur, Iraq; 17 in two separate attacks in Kabul; and five in the Syrian desert. In Mali, Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb killed 32 people in two separate attacks. In Syria, Ansar al-Tawhid killed 27. In Mozambique, Ansar al-Sunna killed 13 people in a terrorist attack. In three terrorist attacks in Mali, Al-Shabaab took a total of 38 lives. A Turkish jihadist, Gökmen Tanis, shot four people to death on a Utrecht tram. And a man named Brenton Tarrant killed 50 people in two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand.
Which of these things is not like the others?
Only one of these attacks was not motivated by a devotion to Islam. Only one was committed by a single individual acting on his own and not as a member of a terrorist group. And only one made worldwide headlines and caused an entire country to lose its mind and take a scimitar to its own freedoms.
Surely one reason why New Zealanders went insane over the mosque attacks, which took place on March 15, is that their country is so geographically isolated that it can seem immune to the troubles that beset the rest of the world. Another reason is that New Zealanders tend to think of themselves as supremely virtuous, liberal, and multicultural. (In recent years, its perceived level of corruption, according to Transparency International, has usually been the lowest on earth; in 2005, it became the first country in history to have every major political post filled by a woman.) Also, while jihadist terrorism in the Western world has generally been on the rise since 9/11, we have, for more than a year now, been spared jihadist incidents on the scale of, say, the Nice attack in 2016 (86 dead), the Manchester Arena massacre in May 2017 (22 dead), and the August 2017 massacre on Las Ramblas in Barcelona (15 dead). Memories are short. The cries of Je suis Charlie fall silent after a single news cycle.
So perhaps it makes a kind of bizarre sense that in New Zealand, which never had a 9/11, an Atocha, or a Beslan, Muslims – not just those killed or wounded in the Christchurch attack, but all Muslims, everywhere – were instantly cast in the role of victims. Perhaps it makes a kind of bizarre sense that countless New Zealand women, including the prime minister, Jacinda Ardern, felt moved to don headscarves out of solidarity – as if the events in Christchurch had somehow magically transformed hijab from a symbol of Islam’s brutal subordination of women into something benign.
But there was more. Three days after the massacre, it was declared illegal for private citizens in New Zealand to own a copy of the perpetrator’s manifesto, which he’d posted online before setting out on his killing spree. David Shanks, who holds the title of Chief Censor at the Office of Film & Literature Classification, ordered New Zealanders who had printouts of the manifesto to destroy them on penalty of up to ten years in prison and a hefty fine. Five days after the massacre, moreover, Ardern announced a change in the country’s gun laws: “every semi-automatic weapon used in the terrorist attack” was now officially banned.
What’s more, because the Canadian psychologist and professor Jordan Peterson had been photographed with a man in a t-shirt reading “I’m a proud Islamaphobe [sic],” Whitcoulls, a New Zealand bookstore chain, removed his current bestseller 12 Rules for Life from its shelves. The New Zealand Herald reported that the man’s t-shirt also included “other derogatory comments about Muslims”; in fact, the remainder of the text on the t-shirt consisted of a list of phenomena associated with Islam, such as pedophilia, rape, wife-beating slavery, sharia courts, terror attacks, taqiyya, anti-semitism, and female genital mutilation. These aren’t “derogatory comments,” needless to say; they’re actual aspects of Islam. But after Christchurch, it was considered exceedingly inappropriate to say so.
There was something else that was viewed as distasteful to bring up after the massacre. Back in 2014, two major New Zealand news websites had reported that Christopher Havard – an Australian who had converted to Islam, changed his name to Saleem Khattab, kidnapped Westerners in Yemen in 2012, and been killed in a U.S. drone strike in Yemen in November 2013 – had, according to his parents, been “introduced to radical Islam at the Al-Noor mosque in Christchurch.” Al-Noor was one of the two mosques attacked on March 15; the other was the Linwood Islamic Centre. As far as I’ve been able to determine, no mainstream media organ in New Zealand, or anywhere else on the planet for that matter, has breathed a word about Havard since the Christchurch murders – not even the sites that originally cited his ties to Al-Noor. On the contrary, while one of the two websites that mentioned Havard has kept its 2014 article up online, the other – stuff.co.nz, the country’s single largest news site – appears to have taken it down after the massacre (although it’s still accessible on the Internet Archive).
Then there’s this: On March 23, Prime Minister Ardern spoke at a memorial vigil at New Zealand’s biggest mosque, the Masjid e Umar, which is located in an Auckland suburb. Her appearance was written about widely, as were the glowing things that the mosque’s chairman, Ahmed Bahmji, had to say about her. “His voice broke,” noted Radio New Zealand, “as he remembered how she had covered her head whenever she had visited a holy space.” Praising her “humility and morality,” Bahmji told her: “We are forever grateful the day that our hearts were broken, you looked straight at us...and spoke to us in a way that restored our hearts, restored our faith and restored our community.” Ardern, who wore a hijab for the occasion, pronounced herself “humbled.”
It was, it turned out, a busy day for the mosque boss: for on that same day Bahmji attended a rally in Auckland, where he told a massive crowd that the massacre in Christchurch had been the work of Mossad, Israel’s intelligence agency, as well as of various “Zionist business houses.” Unlike Bahmji’s fulsome words at the mosque, the anti-Semitic remarks he made at the rally received little if any international notice, and New Zealand’s national media appear to have tried at first to keep mum about them, feeling obliged to cover them only days later, after the Israeli Embassy filed a complaint.
Finally, this past Friday came the official National Remembrance Service. The order of service included speeches by the Prime Minister, the Governor-General, and leaders of New Zealand’s Muslim community, plus one – count him, one – international star: none other than Yusuf Islam, formerly Cat Stevens, who performed his song “Peace Train.” Under the circumstances, of course, it would have been churlish to recall that, once upon a time, Stevens, or Islam, or (to call him by his birth name) Steven Demetre Georgiou, had been an outspoken supporter of the fatwa against Salman Rushdie, that he’d been ordered to leave Israel after having allegedly donated a large sum to Hamas, and that he’d been denied entry into the U.S. for his purported terrorist ties. Who, after all, would dare speak of such unpleasant matters when all of New Zealand was coming together, in such perfect harmony, to embrace the beautiful myth of Muslim innocence?